Father Mark, Reflections

Moccasins are soft

“Judge Softly”

“Pray, don’t find fault with the man that limps,
Or stumbles along the road.
Unless you have worn the moccasins he wears,
Or stumbled beneath the same load.

There may be tears in his soles that hurt
Though hidden away from view.
The burden he bears placed on your back
May cause you to stumble and fall, too.

Don’t sneer at the man who is down today
Unless you have felt the same blow
That caused his fall or felt the shame
That only the fallen know.

You may be strong, but still the blows
That were his, unknown to you in the same way,
May cause you to stagger and fall, too.

Don’t be too harsh with the man that sins.
Or pelt him with words, or stone, or disdain.
Unless you are sure you have no sins of your own,
And it’s only wisdom and love that your heart contains.

For you know if the tempter’s voice
Should whisper as soft to you,
As it did to him when he went astray,
It might cause you to falter, too.

Just walk a mile in his moccasins
Before you abuse, criticize and accuse.
If just for one hour, you could find a way
To see through his eyes, instead of your own muse.

I believe you’d be surprised to see
That you’ve been blind and narrow-minded, even unkind.
There are people on reservations and in the ghettos
Who have so little hope, and too much worry on their minds.

Brother, there but for the grace of God go you and I.
Just for a moment, slip into his mind and traditions
And see the world through his spirit and eyes
Before you cast a stone or falsely judge his conditions.

Remember to walk a mile in his moccasins
And remember the lessons of humanity taught to you by your elders.
We will be known forever by the tracks we leave
In other people’s lives, our kindnesses and generosity.

Take the time to walk a mile in his moccasins.”

~ by Mary T. Lathrap, 1895

The spewing of incivility lately caused me to remember the saying, “Don’t judge a person until you walk a mile in his moccasins.”

As a youngster I was very close to my extended family, uncles, aunts and cousins. It was always a treat when we could visit and play. My dad, uncle, brother and I would go hacking (a low quality of golf). When I got into high school, my uncle and aunt divorced. I was heartbroken. It wasn’t until I was in college that I learned why. My uncle whom I deeply loved was involved with domestic violence with my aunt whom I also loved. I was confused. I couldn’t see him doing this. He was so fun to be with and loving to me.

After college, I began to learn about the darker side of World War II. I had known the battles, places, dates and all of this since my childhood as we were given to know the history of the importance of the sacrifices made to put an end of the tyranny and insanity that had overcome the world. Earlier as a child I recall my uncle playing with my battery powered Bulldog Tank I received at Christmas. When he visited, I didn’t get to use it much. But what I didn’t know is that he was a tank commander in Patton’s 3rd Army and one of the conflicts he was in was the Battle of the Bulge. My uncle never talked about any of this except on two occasions when I was in college and both times he stopped before he completed the sentence.

I began to understand the reasons why people do what they do. Just because Louie had “battle fatigue” (a.k.a. PTSD and Moral Injury) didn’t excuse his earlier behavior. I never witnessed the behavior but now at least I understood the inner turmoil that would occasionally explode outwardly from him. My uncle got help after the divorce and we remained close whenever I returned to visit my parents. Had I been where my uncle was from 1943-1945 I have no idea what mental state I would be in. I cannot even fathom it.

Suffering creates a series of inner wounds and concoction of fear and anger that mostly remains hidden to the human eye. Suffering creates a hardness and rigidity within, that we were never meant to carry. When Jesus teaches the Beatitudes (Matt. 5), he is speaking to our need to wear the moccasins of others.

Jesus teaches “Blessed are those who mourn”–blessed are those in emotional turmoil. People who suffer often do not know how to mourn so that they may be comforted and healed within. Jesus follows with “Blessed are the meek”–Healthy are those who have softened what is rigid within.

My uncle was my first experience of learning to wear the moccasins of others. I would see the suffering of others as a priest and intensely so as a therapist. Some of my clients were victims. Some were perpetrators. I learned how to soften my inner rigidity to work with the latter. Both victims and perpetrators tend to repeat behaviors that are driven from their invisible wounds and the rigid places within. When learning their story I understood, the “why” of their history even though not all would be willing to enter the mourning to heal. That remains a mystery to me of why some do and some do not.

It’s easy to live in a small town and to notice the idiosyncrasies of others–their weaknesses while being unaware of what drives them from their rigid places within. We may never know. But this doesn’t keep us from looking for the rigid places within ourselves that react to the rigid places within them, and simply pray, “Jesus, son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” Jesus will soften our rigid places within. And who knows, once our rigid places soften, others may in some mystical way, begin to soften the rigid places within themselves.

What do you think?

I used to own a pair of moccasins. Moccasins are soft and comfortable, much more so that my rigid leather and cordura snake boots. I need the snake boots sometimes. But I think I’ll get me another pair of moccasins. And remember to remain soft within when I am around others who may not be able to be so.

Here’s to being meek, and softening what is rigid,

Fr. Mark

Father Mark, Reflections

Praying the Beach Ball

This is in continuation of a June 7th sermon I did on How to Pray.

I remember when my parents would take Steve (my brother) and I to the beach when we were little.  We’d swim and splash around and stand in the sand as the water lapped upwards and rescinded, slowing removing sand from around our feet and our feet would sink a little more into the sand with each wave.  The simple joys of childhood.  I find I enjoy them far more than looking at my cell phone.  There’s something all-encompassing about having water, wind, sand and sunshine awakening your bodily senses and filling you with the Mystery of Life.  That’s something I’ve never gotten from a cell phone.

Then my dad would bring out the beach ball.  We’d bat it around and throw it at each other, splashing, laughing and all that.  One day, curiosity got the best of me and I held the beach ball and attempted to submerge it under the water.  It didn’t work. First of all, it took a lot of energy to push it under the water.   There was some kind of pressure moving the ball to the extent that the ball slipped from my hands and surfaced with great force, like a missile, out of the water, actually rising above it for the moment. 

So as a curious scientist (I love science) always does, I tried again with much more determination and with an adjusted grip to make sure that the ball didn’t slip.  Well it did slip a few more times and I repeated the exercise until I was finally able to hold it steady under the water. 

It was exhausting.  I can’t believe the amount of energy it took me to be able to hold that ball under the surface of the water.  Finally, my energy depleted, I let the ball go and it rushed toward and cleared the surface of the water.

Many years had passed when I began to learn how to practice various kinds of prayer.  Contemplative prayer stood out above the others. It was rooted in the ancients and was all encompassing in its carrying me into the vast Mystery of the Holy One that transcended any words I could find to describe it except maybe for the word, solitude.  But even this word is empty in the attempt to describe the experience. 

While practicing contemplative prayer early on, I recall how difficult it was to still the mind.  As I attempted to relax, allow my breathing to enter its natural rhythm, the contents of my mind became louder, sometimes to the extent that it would be very uncomfortable to the point that I would stop the prayer and go do something else.

Then my mentors would reassure me that all this is normal and not to worry about not being able to get my mind to quiet down.  This was just a part of the journey.  Then the memory of being at the beach with the beach ball “rose to the top.”  My cluttered and pressured mind wasn’t the problem in the prayer.  My cluttered mind was the reason for the prayer.  Whether you have an attic, a basement or a junk room, there’s a lot of stuff thrown hither and thither there.  Our spirits and minds also have a lot of stuff in recessed places that we have forgotten about that takes up space and weighs us down.  Prayer is learning to be still enough for long enough to allow all these beach balls that have consumed our energy and attention, affecting our spirit and behavior.   Prayer is learning to listen deeply to what has been hidden so that it may rise to the surface and be given to God.   Prayer is about becoming free.  As the stuff rises to God, so do we and the Spirit makes a home in all the places within us that were once cluttered with the stuff which encumbers our lives. 

Prayer will first bring discomfort before you experience the Peace of God.  In therapeutic genre, the phrase goes, you have to feel it to heal it.   God isn’t trying to make us miserable.  God is trying to get through to remove the misery from us but we must first acknowledge this before God can act.  This is actually what confession really is.  To confess isn’t a bunch of groveling, and being miserable, beating ourselves up and saying what a horrible person we are.  Far from it.  Confession is simply acknowledging what is, allowing God to be in the midst of us to release us from it and to simply without drama or histrionics, move on.

My mother became an Episcopalian when she married my dad.  But that didn’t change the 23 years of her Southern Baptist history so my brother and I grew up with what my spirituality professor in seminary called, the “lash of the oughts.”  This translated into a lot of beach balls under the awareness of my memory that needed to be released.  Contemplative prayer healed me.  Contemplative prayer is still healing me.  Or perhaps I should say that I am being healed by God through the practice of contemplative prayer. 

So when your mind is racing and you find yourself, stressed, going in circles, feeling conflicted, it is past time for contemplative prayer.  Resisting what’s in your mind just makes it stronger.   Learning to invite God into it all so that it may be removed, well, that’s what works for me.   Records of contemplative prayer reveal that I’m not the only one and that it’s been a practice by millions of Christians before the fourth century if not before.  That’s pretty good research sample on which to verify the practice.

Not to be trite, but prayer is really learning how to play with a beach ball—playing beach ball with God.    We throw the ball to God and God gives us another one to throw back to Him.   Playing beach ball is a lot of fun—joyful in fact.  Contemplative prayer, after we begin to get the hang of it, takes us into the Joy of our Master.  It doesn’t get any better than this.

There are two authors I have used for Contemplative or Centering Prayer.  One is Thomas Keating and the other, Cynthia Bourgeault.  Let me know if you would like more information. 

Peace,

Fr. Mark

Father Mark, Reflections

Zooming Isn’t What You Think It Is

I’ve been into photography since the late 70’s, only getting back into the hobby recently.  One of the tools of the trade that makes the hobby easier is a zoom lens (not the internet social media tool).  

Photography, like most other things, mirrors life—always requiring decisions.   What angle do I choose to look through and use?  Should I through a telephoto lens to make the subject larger, eliminating the surroundings or should I get a wide angle to be able to take in the whole picture?   Sometimes I feel like Tevya from The Fiddler on the Roof:  “On the one hand… on the other hand.”  Life seems to be a polarity of opposite tensions much of the time.   Sometimes, since digital cameras are cheap to use, not having to pay for the cost of film like I used to, I take both a wide and a close up telephoto shot just so that I have both views. 

Jesus did much the same.  On a mountain, he would do two different activities:  he would pray and he would look out over the landscape or the city of Jerusalem.   He focused on both the inner life up close and the wide angle of how he would bring that inner life into the larger world.  Both the wide angle and the telephoto view bring necessary perspectives.  Without both we lack the whole picture. 

When I am alone pondering a course of action, or even with a group, using a telephoto lens to get up close to see what needs to be initiated or solved is necessary to put everything in motion.   This is usually the easy part.  What is more difficult and requires more patience, is to zoom to the wide angle view of things to see how the intended act might create various positive and negative outcomes in the environment at large.  This keeps us from making those “knee-jerk” reactions which most of the time prove to be disastrous.   Taking the time to get the wider and more long range perspective conflicts with our need for instant gratification which is endemic in our culture.   One doesn’t need to look far to see the maladies and suffering created due to instant gratification.   Instant gratification and its underlying anxiety reveals a lack of mental and spiritual development.  I sometimes struggle with it, especially when I am under stress when I seek to sublimate the stress by seeking gratification elsewhere that will not solve the problem.   This is one reason I don’t eat donuts anymore.  There are as many false ways to assuage anxiety as there are people.  We all have our ways of substituting alternatives for instant gratification to decrease anxiety. 

Of course, there’s always the mountain offering us the space for a more telephoto look at our distress, allowing us to sit with our suffering and to invite God into it, seeking healing and direction instead of running down the mountain to seek the next diversion to divert our attention from what is really going on. 

Coping with COVID requires both the wide angle and telephoto zoom approach.   Looking up close to spiritually assess our inner life while using the wide angle lens to negotiate how our decisions of how we live with this unpleasantness helps us to better maintain a rhythm in our home life and the limited way we interact with the community. 

It’s no surprise that depression and anxiety mental health stats are rising and if we’re affected by the same it’s nothing to be ashamed of.   It has nothing to do with a lack of toughness or independence.  It does have a lot to do with loss and the grief therein.   I have noticed a significant drop in the amount of humor I observe and the laughter I hear.   I once had a client in therapy who had high blood pressure.  She brought their blood pressure monitor to sessions and we attempted various approaches.  For the client, the best intervention was laughter.   We tried watching humorous scenes, funny stories and other things which lowered her blood pressure. 

I notice that in my own life, when my spiritual life is in balance, I tend to have a more playful way about me and I laugh more—not an anxious laugh but a belly laugh.  I believe this is because that when I am spiritually centered, that I my fear or whatever else is bothering me dissolves. I John: “Perfect love casts out fear.”   It takes a much greater effort and intention to focus on God now in the midst of COVID-19 and all the political turmoil that comes mostly from the lack of seeing the bigger picture of the wide angle lens.   My father and my uncle taught me to look at the wider picture.   I learned to value the bigger picture when learning systems theory in grad school.   Most of all, I have learned that Jesus was a natural at zooming in and out, integrating the inner Spiritual Kingdom with the outer way in the world.   

Take an up close view:  what do you need most now in the center of your being?   Then find ways to manifest this and to then zoom to the wide angle to see how the Spirit creates your vision to see what is really happening in the bigger picture in the environment around you.  Allow the Holy Spirit to help you blend both. 

Jesus offers us a better way than knee jerk, impulsive living as he is the one who can still the waters in our souls–offering us a full frame life.

Blessings,

Fr. Mark

Father Mark, Reflections

How We Affect People

I am reminded of a story of my late Uncle Louie, who as a child was playing with a baseball in the back yard and by mistake threw the ball through the garage window.   He was dumbstruck, my dad said.  He was dumbstruck and terrified when my future grandfather/his father stormed out of the house onto the back porch to find out what happened.  Louie, exasperated and terrified, blurted out, “I didn’t do it because I didn’t mean it.” 

Much of the time, we’re not aware of our effect on others.   Much of the time, our presence in another’s life brings many gifts, joy and peace.    Other times, our presence, unbeknown to us, creates wounds in others. 

I can really identify with Louie, God rest his soul.  One of the most embarrassing times in my life is when I find out later that something I did or said hurt someone.  It doesn’t matter if I had no intention of doing so.  There’s a rift and something is broken and if at all possible reconciliation is in order.   The egg on my face and lump in my gut tell me that somehow, I need to meet with that person to find out what happened and to make amends.   But before all this there is a tension within me that screams, “I didn’t want this to happen,” wanting to magically undo the whole event.  After all, who in their right mind really wants to hurt someone, especially someone they really care about? Am I terminally unique here or can you identify? 

Other people matter as much as I do—not more nor less but as much.  Sometimes I forget this.  This doesn’t mean that I cannot be myself in order to please people.  I spent a couple years in therapy in my thirties dealing with this as it’s not healthy nor is it genuine.  People pleasing also restricts one from intimacy because instead of you “being there” present with the other, a false persona leaves the other by themselves with no real response.  It’s kind of like shaking someone’s hand and getting the limp wrist response.

Believing that other people matter requires that I do some self-searching in spiritual circles called, Examination of Conscience.   As the General Confession in our prayer book says we look for “what we have done and what we have left undone.”  We uncover what we can and even ask for feedback to be able to get to the truth of the matter and then seek to make amends. 

But what do we do when people are offended at us when we have not said or done anything to our awareness against them according to the Laws of God and Nature?   By seeking to understand what the other person is saying, we may recognize a misunderstanding, something we may have done or not done, or actually not done anything at all according the laws of God and Nature.  Sometimes people can be offended because their perceptions are skewed by faulty thinking or subconsciously by inner wounds that result in others crossing a boundary of our autonomy.  We equally have the need in our Examination of Conscience to discern whether our perceptions are within the boundaries of the Laws of God and Nature.  These are difficult encounters requiring great maturity to be able to sit down and dialogue without becoming inflamed.   If values and beliefs cannot find some common ground or be mutually understood, sometimes the best we can do is to agree to disagree while showing respect to the other and go one’s separate ways. 

The reason I say “Laws of God and Nature” is because one must have a criteria on which to base one’s thinking, actions and judgment.  I don’t have a better guide to follow than the one given to us by the One who created all things.   The word here is “authority.”  “By what authority,” Jesus was asked, “do you say and do these things?” (Mark 11).  We have to choose our authority.  In fact, whether we are aware of it or not, every day we choose our authority. And it is important that we choose well. 

I discovered a prayer that I like from the New Zealand Prayer Book (Anglican) that seems to fit this occasion: 

 “O God, it is your will to hold both heaven and earth in a single peace. Let the design of your great love shine on the waste of our wraths and sorrows, and give peace to your Church, peace among nations, peace in our homes, and peace in our hearts.” Amen.

Fr. Mark

Father Mark, Reflections

What Forgiveness Is

As I was engaged with our beloved late Bishop Bob Hibbs’ book, An Altar in Your Heart, the thought came to me about Easter again.  Easter was different this past year, not in the event itself but in the way we observed it.  Easter, if we are awakened to its infinite Reality, is every Sunday and every day.   We are fed both communally by the Christ who comes through each of us to others and individually through the time we invest in quiet moments to reflect, contemplate and receive the Divine Breath of “Peace be with you.”  Due to the COVID-19, the balance of being fed spiritually through the community and individually has been skewed requiring a more intentional focus on the individual prayer life to sustain our spiritual core.

Bob writes of mercy being like a river from God to us.   Mercy flows between our own personal and collective Good Friday’s and Christ’s benevolent, radiant Easter presence carrying us by the Spirit into Christ and the Father so that the words of Jesus become a reality:  “May we be one as the Father and I are one.” 

So what this forgiveness actually does—this never ending stream of Living Water, is carry us into God.  Forgiveness isn’t just an erasing of our naughty check marks on the black board.  Forgiveness, the Living Stream of mercy, changes us—heals us, transforms us, enlightens our darkness down to our toe nails.  We aren’t the same after we receive forgiveness because receiving forgiveness is receiving Christ himself.  We’re not meant to be our old phony, try to get by, afraid to reveal, scared to be honest, afraid to be still, resentful, afraid to be hurt, and scared to give or receive love, selves.   Jesus’ Transfiguration on Mt. Tabor scared the beegeebers out of Peter, James and John.  They couldn’t hold the Light coming through Jesus.   Light hurts before it feels good.  It’s like a stiff muscle.  We know we need to exercise it to get the full range of motion.  But boy does it hurt on the way getting there.  But once we’re there, oh what a joy to be free to move again!  The Transfiguration is like a holy laser that cuts through everything that afflicts us, either removing it or transforming it.  Let us bathe in your Blessed Light O Jesus and give us the faith to remain present through any discomfort to receive your healing. 

Forgiveness is a stream of mercy and Divine Light eternally available to us.   This is what Easter does.

Forgiveness doesn’t work like the commercial’s positive attitude of saying, ’”just do it.” Like Mary, let us with open hearts respond, “Let it (forgiveness) be done to me according to thy Word.”  

May the Peace and Light of Forgiveness be yours this day and hereafter,

Fr. Mark